Iran’s ayatollahs are going nuts over a harmless video. But they’re not the first autocrats to obsess about the impact of popular culture.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
The video is infectious. Six twenty-something Iranians dance ecstatically on a rooftop in north Tehran, acting out the lyrics of a song that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a serenade to euphoric silliness. They posted their charmingly low-budget production on YouTube — just like dozens of other people around the world who’ve gotten into the act by creating their own visual paeans to Pharrell Williams’s international hit "Happy." They weren’t exactly conspiratorial about it, either. The original video included detailed credits.
It didn’t end well for the video’s creators. All six of them were arrested by the Iranian secret police. The authorities paraded them on national TV, scolding the women for their allegedly "immoral" behavior. (Needless to say, none of them is wearing a headscarf in the video, and some of the girls even touch the boys — albeit in an entirely harmless and playful way.) Five of the cast were released after spending the night in the jail, but the director of the video, Sassan Soleimani, was, apparently, only just released on bail last week. (He’d already been detained once before on similar charges of suspect video-making.)
So why all the fuss? Do the ayatollahs really find the notion of happiness so subversive? Are the ideas of Pharrell Williams really a threat to the Tehran regime? Why should six people end up enduring imprisonment and national humiliation for dancing to the blandest of songs?
Some Western commentators have interpreted the whole affair as renewed evidence (as if any were needed) of the Iranian leadership’s intolerance and humorlessness. It’s certainly true that the people who run the Islamic Republic like to present themselves, at least publicly, as the scowling defenders of puritan orthodoxy — no matter how trivial the offense.
In reality, though, there is a bit more to it than that. All the evidence suggests that young Iranians have plenty of access to global popular culture, and they usually manage to evade trouble for indulging. Satellite TV and Internet access offer many paths to forbidden pleasures, and as long as you pursue your enthusiasms behind closed doors, chances are that the morals police won’t come after you.
And, in fact, it turns out that the Iranian authorities didn’t pay much attention to the "Happy" video from Tehran when it was first posted. The goons swung into action only once Soleimani’s work began to build viewership after weeks on YouTube; he and his colleagues were arrested a full month after their video went on the web. This suggests that it wasn’t just the giddy, un-Islamic content that riled the powers that be, but the fact that the authors managed to find such a big public audience for their work. In other words, it’s not the video — it’s the viral. The creators of the video, which has now been viewed some 2 million times, demonstrated a power to mobilize the masses. And that, presumably, is what the guardians of revolutionary order found most threatening about the whole incident.
Pop culture is a double-edged sword for despotic regimes. Twentieth-century totalitarians realized early on that new technologies like radio and movies offered hitherto unknown opportunities for direct influence over mass audiences. "Of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema," Vladimir Lenin once famously observed. The Nazis made particularly effective use of radio, even decreeing that every home should have its own "people’s radio receiver" in order to ensure that the Führer‘s message was heard loud and clear. The grand drama of Hitler’s mass political rallies was designed to work equally well in cinema newsreels as well as radio broadcasts.
Interestingly, though, even in the most repressive states, propaganda sometimes has to take a back seat to entertainment, if only to retain the loyalty of subjects. Nazi leaders saw popular culture as the perfect way to keep the populace happy — and distracted. The film critic Eric Rentschler calculates that some 86 percent of the films churned out by studios during the Third Reich were "unpolitical." Joseph Goebbels, the failed novelist who became Hitler’s devilishly clever propaganda minister, even sneered at priggish "moralists" who wanted to ban movies or songs on grounds of "public decency."
Joseph Stalin had a big weakness for musical comedies, often using his status as the final arbiter of the Soviet film industry to intervene directly in casting and screenplays. Some of the show tunes produced for 1930s films were so good that Russians still hum them today. When the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore was digging through Stalin’s personal archive, he found some characteristically banal lyrics from the immensely popular musical Volga Volga that the dictator had taken the time to write down by hand:
A joyful song is easy for the heart/ It does ever bore you/ And all the villages great and small adore that tune/ While the big cities sing the song!
Yet dictators always remain aware that even the most harmless pop culture can have threatening ideological implications. The Nazis didn’t like jazz or swing music, which they saw as rooted in "negro music" and tainted by carefree American morality. Though Stalin had a personal weakness for Hollywood directors like John Ford, he wasn’t about to let Soviet audiences enjoy the great open spaces of the American Western. According to Montefiore, the Soviet dictator once told Nikita Khrushchev that John Wayne deserved to be shot — though that presumably had more to do with the actor’s public anti-communism than the characters that he played.
In short, how dictators feel about pop culture depends a great deal on the context: you can never quite predict how a despot’s ideology or personal tastes will determine how they react to a particular artist or work. In private, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently has a soft spot for LFMAO and New Order. In public, his tastes run more to the patriotic folk songs that glorify his rule (and which could be heard blasting from loudspeakers on special trucks cruising the streets of Syrian cities in the run-up to this week’s presidential elections).
The broader political context may well have something to do with the punishment meted out to the creators of the Iranian "Happy" video, too. Hard-line Islamists are currently engaged in a power struggle with moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who obliquely sided with the "Happy" crew in a tweet. (Soleimani, the director of the video, is said t
o have done some work for Rouhani’s campaign.) The Iranian authorities’ sensitivity to viral content has undoubtedly intensified since the Green Revolution, when young Iranians showed that mobile phones and Internet access made organizing illicit demonstrations a lot easier. Given such fraught circumstances, even an apparently apolitical work like "Happy" can start to look like material for real political intrigue. And the powers that be in Tehran can’t be thrilled to see that the "Happy" video continues to find myriad sympathizers as well as inventive copycats (like this sly parody that features puppets in place of the original dancers).
Dictators, in short, are more than happy to harness the power of mass entertainment to their own ends. They’re always ready to appreciate the virtues of pop culture — as long as they can control it. The problem for autocrats is that movies, books, and music of any kind have an essential elusiveness, including a highly unpredictable tendency to seek out their own audiences. Culture, even in its popular flavors, has a peculiar power over the human mind that’s impossible to contain completely. Perhaps the dictators are right to be paranoid — even when it’s a matter of music videos.